This post was occasioned by a confluence of two events. I recently finished Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, and a 93 year-old water main in west Los Angeles ruptured, sending up to two feet of flood water across Sunset Boulevard and parts of UCLA’s Westwood campus, including the famous Pauley Pavilion basketball arena. Although I’m sure my reading of Smith had no causal effect on the water main rupture (that would be a result of the combination of chemistry, physics, and systemic neglect of public infrastructure), I can’t let such a wonderful coincidence go by without comment (for somewhat more pointed comment, see Charlie Pierce).

Smith’s book is a clever and well-developed synthesis of several strains of urban historiography. He connects the kind of infrastructural history of waterworks and institutional history of public health and sanitary movements associated with Joel Tarr’s pathbreaking work to the analysis of the creation of a public city through infrastructure and governance developed by reform intellectuals like Frederic Howe and later historians like Thomas Bender. Smith further considers the way that ideas, expressed in public through polemic, the rhetoric of water boards’ annual reports, and even art commemorating and monumentalizing the establishment of municipal water service as a kind of secular urban miracle, drove the development of infrastructure and governing authority and helped to make clean and safe water a taken-for-granted part of American urban life.

This is no mere history of waterworks (though it does shed new light on the efforts to establish them in three cities). Smith makes insightful arguments about how the struggle to provide water changed the meaning and experience of urban life, physically, politically, and ideologically. One key way, Smith argues, that it did so was through changing the way that urban dwellers related to time. Specifically, when cities committed resources through bonded debt to build waterworks, they compelled their residents to accept a financial burden on behalf of future generations of residents (as well as on behalf of other members of an urban collective in their own day), and the elites who frequently championed and shepherded the idea of waterworks to fruition developed novel and sophisticated appeals to historical immortality, family morality, and self-interest to encourage residents, and especially those of means, who would bear much of the financial cost, to embrace that burden, and to justify extending it to the future.

 The borrowing demanded by waterworks inspired bold and ingenious invocations of history and time that characterized a debt as a bequest or endowment for which future residents should be grateful, not as a burden they should resent…. The Watering Committee [of Philadelphia, in 1799] pointed out that people living in the city in years to come would be “justly made to pay, in some proportion, for the benefit they would receive.” A water loan should be viewed as a gift to them, not an encumbrance, since it did no less than make a greater Philadelphia possible. (211-12)

Smith’s work takes on a particularly tragic resonance in light of the LA rupture which, to be honest, is receiving attention mostly because it flooded a famous sports arena, rather than for what it says about our collective capacity to connect our own interests to others in our place and time and those whose lives will be shaped in the future by our present actions. In California and across the country, Americans have turned the idea of committing future generations to public infrastructure on its head, deciding now to abandon our water, sewer, road, and communications systems and tell our progeny to decide on their own if they want to fix it. Today, with near-zero interest rates, we could be deciding on behalf of our grandchildren to issue infrastructure bonds that would help guarantee the movement of people, goods, and ideas, and ensure the provision of clean water and the safe evacuation of sewage from our homes. I don’t think they’d resent us for it, even if we used some of the money to make some self-congratulatory statues in our own honor (which the Philadelphian waterworks champions of the late 18th century certainly did). Imagine if Philadelphians in 1799 had watched Fox News….

It’s also worth noting that the development of water works required urban elites and ordinary residents to wrestle with and find pragmatic solutions to allocating costs for water service. While home usage was amenable to a user fee model that continued the idea of private responsibility, building capacity for public uses of water like fire protection defied all efforts to assign costs to individual beneficiaries, becoming a true public good. Further, while many debated how to link payment to usage, the public health promises of clean water in an age of deadly epidemic disease raised an opposite point–that access to clean water could be construed as a right and entitlement of habitation of a city that couldn’t be denied to individuals for humane reasons and that should not be withheld for the benefit of the city as a whole.

To distribute water without charge was never a serious option…. At the same time, however, no humane community could deny an individual access to water even if that person could not afford to pay for it. In short, figuring out fees for water, while it entailed financial considerations that were challenging for technical reasons, also posed more abstract questions of individual and collective obligations and rights. (93)

In our contemporary terms, residents of nineteenth century Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago established, sometimes unwittingly and not without the recurrent expression of contrary opinion, that access to clean water was a human right. Today the United Nations “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The appointed emergency management of the city of Detroit, of course, disagrees, and has ordered the termination of water service to 17,000 homes and businesses for delinquency on water bills. John Nichols estimates that there are up to 90,000 low income Detroit families who may face a water shutoff over water bills that have continued to rise under pressure from bond investors and emergency managers to shore up the finances of the city’s water services. This might mean up to 300,000 Detroiters and 40% of water customers.

Smith’s thesis is that an “infrastructure of ideas” as much as an infrastructure of pumps, pipes, and spigots, brought water into the fabric of urban life. It was once unthinkable to deny access to water because of the inability to pay, as it was once unthinkable to make one generation’s investment in infrastructure a casualty of a later generation’s refusal to pay the upkeep.  Read Smith’s book and reflect on the consequences of abandoning the accumulated infrastructure of ideas of two centuries.

Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.